Kaarlo Kurko and the Miracle of Vistula

The Polish independence day just ended, so perhaps it’s high time that I introduced myself and joined the other participants of this blog. My name is Jussi Jalonen, and some of the followers of this blog may remember me from soc.history.what-if as well as from Noel Maurer’s blog. I’m a Finnish military historian, currently residing in the city of Tampere; however, as you may have guessed from the remark that I made at the beginning of this post, I also have a research interest in Poland, which combines quite naturally with the war studies.

About a year ago, I delivered a presentation in a seminary of Finnish and Polish historians at the University of Warsaw. The story was about Kaarlo Kurko, a Finnish soldier of fortune, who fought as a volunteer in the Polish-Soviet war in 1920. For whatever reason, the organizing professor Michał Kopczyński was intrigued by the topic, and suggested that Kurko’s memoirs should be translated in Polish and published to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Warsaw. The book was finally published a few months ago under the title “Cud nad Wisłą; Wspomnienia fińskiego uczestnika wojny polsko-rosyjskiej w roku 1920” (“The Miracle of Vistula; the Memoirs of a Finnish participant in the Polish-Soviet war, 1920”). The first edition has apparently already sold out, although some of the internet bookstores still have a few copies left; the second edition is coming out right now.

The book was published by the publishing house Bellona, formerly owned by the Polish Ministry of National Defense, these days a commercial publishing house specializing in militaria. As in many other countries, military history sells quite well also in Poland, where there’s no shortage of historical themes. The excellent and professional translation from Finnish was done by Bożena Kojro, the introduction was written by yours truly, and there’s also a detailed afterword by historian Oleg Łatyszonek. Special thanks should be extended to Runo K. Kurko, the eldest son of the author Kaarlo Kurko, and the head of the National Rifle Association of Finland, with whom we of course negotiated the copyright agreement.

(For those who are wondering, yes, the NRA-Finland is specifically modeled after the original American NRA. Stephen P. Halbrook was very kind to send his greetings to Kurko when the association was set up, and they’ve continued to stay in touch. Not that it’s all that relevant, but for the record, I happen to be a gun-owner myself as well.)

But, back to the topic. So, what kind of a man was this Kaarlo Kurko, and how exactly did he end up from Finland to Poland in 1920? As most of you know, the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921 attracted wide international attention. The foreigners who were caught in the middle of the conflict included such notables as the young Charles de Gaulle and monsignor Achille Ratti – the future Pope Pius XI – as well as the American pilots of Major Cedric Fauntleroy’s Kościuszko squadron.  In this respect, Kurko was simply one among the many, but his memoirs nonetheless provide quite a unique perspective on the conflict, and a rich panorama of the experiences of an individual foreign soldier.

Kaarlo Sakari Kurko (10.10.1899 – 20.6.1989) – portrayed on the left, in the Russian uniform that he wore during the campaigns of the revolutionary era – started his military career in the Finnish Civil War of 1918. As a young student from the lyceum of Tampere, Kurko joined the forces of the Finnish Senate – the “Whites” – and reached the rank of a sergeant major in the Civil Guard after participating in the Battle of Tampere. The bloody war against the Finnish Reds was followed by the “White Terror”, a period of harsh retribution characterized by violence, executions and the prison camps, where the malnutrition, Spanish influenza and other diseases finished off many of those Red prisoners who had been fortunate enough to be granted some kind of a due process. A sign of the times was that even a 19-year old schoolboy such as Kurko was given the command of the prison camp Kruununpyy, a task which he did not bother to describe in his subsequent memoirs. The Civil War had, however, also stirred something in him, and generated a further desire for battle and adventure which had to be satisfied. The opportunity came in December 1919, when the Finnish government and several private individuals started to recruit volunteers to assist the newly-independent sister nation of Estonia in the fight against the Bolshevik Russia. Kurko was among the first to volunteer for lieutenant-colonel Hans Kalm’s privately-organized expeditionary force, known as the “Sons of the North”.

By January 1919, the Estonian army, reinforced with the Finnish volunteers, had halted the Bolshevik advance and organized a successful counteroffensive. Kurko participated in the conquest of the town of Narva and also in the battles in northern Latvia. With the Estonian front secured, most of the Finnish soldiers were shipped back to their homeland already in April, but some of them, Kurko included, decided to stay in Estonia, participating in further operations against the Bolsheviks on the Narva front. When the eventual peace negotiations between Estonia and Soviet Russia started in December 1919, those Finnish volunteers who were unwilling to return home were quick to notice a new opportunity for action further south. As Kurko himself later on noted in his memoirs:

Marvelous news were coming from Poland! We heard that marshal Piłsudski and his Ukrainian allies were planning for a massive offensive against Russia. Who would not want to join in such a historical campaign? Those Finnish volunteers who were still in Estonia and Latvia were enthusiastic at this new chance to strike against the hated Muscovites on the frontiers of Poland, a country that was known already to our ancestors. We had to get to Poland, by any means necessary.

With the trans-Baltic lands still embroiled in the chaos of war and revolution, getting to Poland was easier said than done. Kurko had, however, made up his mind, and was willing to take the chances. How he managed it, and what were his fortunes in the battlefields of Poland, we shall hear in our next installments.

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3 Responses to Kaarlo Kurko and the Miracle of Vistula

  1. Pingback: Kaarlo Kurko; the journey to the Polish battlefields, 1919 | History and Futility

  2. Pingback: Kaarlo Kurko; the victory, the downfall and the aftermath | History and Futility

  3. Pingback: Patrioottien tilinpäätös | Historiantutkijan näkötorni

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